An Unconventional Plan
President Lawrence S. Bacow's vision
underscores the importance of thinking beyond traditional boundaries
President Lawrence S. Bacow arrived at Tufts in 2001.
Recently, he shared his vision with the Tufts community, (“A
University Poised,” spring Tufts Magazine), and set
a pace for change that might best be described as sharply
disciplined. His training for the Boston Marathon, one suspects,
has also been good training for a job that is its own long-distance
run—and with more than a few Heart-break Hills to test
the most solid resolve. Yet, as Bacow speaks candidly about
his ideas, a brisk authority is balanced by the indis-pensable
virtues of patience and optimism. Below, he talks with Laura
Ferguson, expanding on his vision and ideas, and how he sees
Tufts growing and thriving in the years ahead.
You came to Tufts from MIT, where you were chancellor.
What were the surprises you met as a university president?
The biggest surprise is how much fun this job has been. Adele
and I have really enjoyed our life as part of this community.
I find the work to be incredibly interesting and stimulating.
People often assume that this is a stressful job. I don’t.
I find it engaging. It’s a full life, but it is also
And disappointments or challenges?
Certainly September 11 was a challenge for me. It occurred
the second week I was here. And probably the hardest times
in this job have been when we’ve lost students or colleagues.
Being president of a university is like being mayor of a small
town. Between our students, faculty, and staff, we’re
a community of roughly 14,000 people. As in any small town,
we have accidents and illnesses. When somebody dies, each
of us feels it very personally. Often, my role is to try to
console people. I sometimes characterize this as the pastoral
dimensions of my job, and it’s the hardest thing I do.
You spent some of your spring break as a guest of
Tufts-New England Medical Center for an infection that settled
in the lining around your heart. I wonder what it was like
to have to suspend your normal schedule for several weeks.
It changed my life quite dramatically. I really had to leave
the running of the university to others for close to a month
while I focused on getting healthy. I turned to the people
immediately around me—the provost, the executive vice
president, the deans, my senior direct reports, and I said
to them, “I need you to step in and figure out what
needs to be done and just do it.” And they did a wonderful
job. I think their performance demonstrated to the community
the great strength that we have in the senior leadership of
the university. My heart may have skipped a few beats, but
the university’s didn’t.
You identified some of your chief priorities in “A
University Poised.” Could you talk about how the scholarly
reputation is lagging behind the reputation of prospective
There is a simple explanation. Each fall we recruit an entirely
new generation of students. Thus the student body turns over
every four years. By contrast, the average faculty member
stays at Tufts for close to 30 years. So it takes us much
longer to effect change in the faculty than in the student
body. Hence, the reputation of our students changes faster
than that of our faculty.
How can we address that issue?
We already are. Every time we make an appointment at Tufts,
that appointment should raise the average quality of the unit
into which the person is being appointed. If we are to constantly
improve as an institution, it means the people have to be
improving as well. I’m very proud of the appointments
that we’ve made in the last three years. We’ve
recruited a cadre of deans as well as a provost who I think
are absolutely superb. Jamshed [Bharucha] has been a wonderful
successor to Sol [Gittleman]. He’s helped recruit a
fabulous dean of the Medical School, Michael Rosenblatt, who
came from Harvard, a fabulous dean of Engineering in Linda
Abriola, a member of the National Academy who came from the
University of Michigan, and now a fabulous new dean of the
Friedman School of Nutrition, Science and Policy, Eileen Kennedy.
Mike Rosenblatt worked with the provost to select Naomi Rosenberg
as the dean for the graduate programs at the Medical School
and the Sackler School. We recruited her from within. She’s
a distinguished biologist and terrific. Susan Ernst has recruited
a superb new dean of admissions, Lee Coffin, to succeed David
Cuttino. Lee is off to a fast start. I’m proud of Mary
Jeka’s appointment as vice president for university
relations, a new position that has brought energy and focus
to how we get the university’s messages across to our
key constituencies. Our deans are working with our department
heads to recruit the next generation of faculty. Our new faculty
appointments are also exciting. I could go on.
and Then Some
What was considered a quick question on what President
Lawrence S. Bacow likes to read (“If you were stranded
on a desert island . . . ”) led instead to a wide-ranging
and lively response. Bacow, who admits to a tendency to
wander around libraries and bookstores, said he’s
working through a tall stack of books on his night table.
They are almost exclusively history and biography. “I
read history because I learn from it. As president of
the university, I feel obliged to understand different
ways and modes of thinking.” Below, an at-a-glance
review of some of the president’s literary pursuits,
not on a remote island, but on Packard Avenue, aboard
airplanes, and over summer vacation while plying the New
England waters on the family sailboat, Quest.
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship
Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick
Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror,
by Richard A. Clarke
April 1865: The Month That Saved America, by Jay Winik
Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, by Margaret
Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, by Brenda Maddox
Mozart: A Life, by Maynard Solomon
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, by Walter Isaacson
The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes
Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American
Century, by G. Pascal Zachary (Bush, one of Tufts’
most noted alumni, graduated from the School of Engineering
Cruising at Last: Sailing the East Coast from South Carolina
to Maine, by Elliott Merrick (A book about a couple who
build a boat and then sail it from the Carolinas to Maine
Is there a time period over which one establishes
a top reputation?
One ought to look at it over the course of at least a decade.
Reputation is really a function of the quality of faculty
and students. We recruit great faculty who help us to recruit
great students, and the great students then help us to recruit
faculty, so our recruiting efforts reinforce each other. It
takes a while for this process to be understood by the rest
of the world. There is always a lag function. However, I think
we’re already starting to see progress. I wouldn’t
want to make too much of it, but in a recent survey that’s
done annually of university presidents, provosts, and deans
of admission, our scholarly reputation index started to move
upward. For the past 15 years it had remained constant.
The past year or so has been important to a relatively
new feature of Tufts, the University College of Citizenship
and Public Service, now better known as the University College.
Could you talk about its progress?
I’m very excited by the progress that the University
College continues to make. We have an opportunity through
the University College to create a new model for educating
active citizens at Tufts and beyond. Every organization looks
to a few people for leadership when the organization meets
a challenge. These are people who have the capacity to bring
others together for a common purpose. They are people who
frame issues in ways that help to move things forward. They
are people who succeed in identifying resources where others
only see scarcity. The people who perform these functions
in one organization tend to be the same people who do the
same in other organizations. They are society’s true
active citizens. What we seek to do in the University College
is to educate people with these skills, and to motivate our
students to be these people. I see the University College
as an amplifier of everything that we do at Tufts.
You’re fostering a resourcefulness —
A willingness to engage and to listen and to not necessarily
think that you’ve got all the answers. Again, as I like
to point out, active citizenship does not mean shouting louder.
It means working as part of a community, and with that goes
a responsibility to engage others, to listen, and to help
make the process work better.
Are we one of the few schools to really take that
on at this level?
Absolutely. Service learning has been around for a long time,
but the University College is a new model for education for
public service—a sort of diffusion model. Other institutions
have typically created programs focused on students who put
their hands up and say, “I am interested in a career
in public service” or “I’m interested in
a career in the nonprofit sector.” Our view is that
everybody who graduates from a college or university has a
responsibility to be engaged in his or her community and to
give back. This is equally true of doctors, lawyers, engineers,
teachers, humanists, veterinarians—everyone. We want
to encourage active citizenship across the political spectrum,
and we are trying to do it by encouraging every student at
Tufts to be so involved.
Do you think prospective students, because of the
tuition, are extra-critical of what they see in front of them
when they visit Tufts, that they have very high expectations?
Students ought to have high expectations. It is expensive
to attend an institution like Tufts. However, I think the
rise in tuition has influenced attitudes in ways that are
not always healthy. Students sometimes view themselves as
customers, and the university as merely providing a product.
If a certain course or requirement is not to their liking,
they may believe it should be changed simply because “they
are paying the bill.” I find this unfortunate. The reality
is that tuition only covers a modest part of the true cost
of an education. Everyone who attends Tufts is being subsidized
by the generosity of those who have come before them. Also,
while we study certain things because they yield a very tangible
economic return for our tuition dollars, we want students
to study other things because these subjects will make them
better, more interesting people. Thus, education is both investment
Right, it costs money.
I mean it in a different way. You study some subjects not
because they are going to yield an economic return, but because
they’re going to enrich and ennoble your life, because
they’re going to help you see the world and understand
it through a lens that can only be understood through the
value of a true liberal education. One cannot measure these
benefits in economic terms, but they are very real. Now I
think we do a spectacular job of delivering on this kind of
education. One thing I’ve come to appreciate about Tufts
is that this is a place where students, faculty, and staff
find balance and harmony that does not exist at many other
In what components?
In multiple dimensions. For example, our faculty care passionately
about teaching. That’s why they’re here, but they
also are very serious scholars working at the cutting edge
of their disciplines. And they don’t view one as being
done at the expense of the other. Our students are incredibly
gifted intellectually, but also recognize that much of what
they are going to learn will come from outside the classroom.
So they are equally engaged by everything that they find on
this Hill and beyond. They also manage to do something that
lots of students at other elite universities don’t do—they
have fun. They enjoy their classes. They have a life. They
succeed in preparing themselves to earn a living while also
exploring the great and enduring questions that people have
grappled with through the ages. That’s a wonderful balance.
Another way in which I think we have great balance and harmony
and why we are attractive as an institution is our physical
environment. We enjoy this quintessential New England college
campus, which literally could be located anywhere. But stand
on the roof of the library and according to Boston Magazine
you get the best view of Boston around. We’re cheek-by-jowl
with one of the world’s great cities, four stops away
on the Red Line. At the base of the Hill, Davis Square has
become the hot place for young people to live. You give up
nothing when you come to Tufts
So what’s your pitch to parents?
It’s very, very simple. Every university attempts to
present its best face through the campus tour. My advice is
to get off the tour. Stop any student at Tufts, and ask them
about their experience. I also encourage students and parents
when they visit this campus to separate. I tell parents that
their kids will see things differently on their own than if
their parents are standing next to them. Whenever students
visit a campus, they should go off on their own and go to
places where students are. Go to the library, a cafeteria,
the student center, stop people and ask them about their experience.
In effect, create your own tour.
One of the great strengths of higher education in this country
is its diversity. Different institutions have different approaches
to education. At Tufts, we believe that a liberal education
should expose people to a broad variety of fields, and that
the faculty should articulate what it is that they think is
important that all students should know. I’m proud that
we’ve maintained a strong commitment to foreign languages
and culture at a time when some other institutions have abandoned
them. In the global world that we inhabit, being able to speak
more than one language, to understand different cultures,
is important. We also demand that our students sample broadly
from the sciences, mathematics, the humanities, and the social
sciences. I am proud that unlike at some institutions, students
do not complain of lack of faculty contact at Tufts. Education
here is a full-body contact sport. Students cannot help but
to get to know faculty members. Finally, we are expanding
the opportunities for our undergraduates to interact with
faculty in our professional schools through expanded research
opportunities, more joint courses that are offered between
the college and the professional schools, and more joint degree
programs for our undergraduate students with the Fletcher
School, the Medical School, the Dental School, and the Veterinary
Will you be addressing alumni about your next campaign
and academic and research priorities?
Everything is pretty transparent. We are going to drive every
single decision that we make at Tufts by our academic priorities—every
single resource allocation decision. If you were to go into
the schools right now, you would find them each engaged in
a strategic planning process. We will put the individual school
plans together for presentation to the trustees for their
approval next year. And then we will share it with the larger
community, much in the same way that I shared the vision of
the trustees with the rest of the community. It’s my
intention to keep sharpening our focus and to keep sharing
it. I want everybody to understand where we’re going.
When we are clear on our priorities, then we will move forward
with the campaign. It is important that the campaign be driven
by our academic priorities, not the other way around.
Do you have a plan for knitting the schools together?
We’re doing it in a variety of ways. For example, the
university-wide Council on Graduate Education is one such
effort. This group has already come forward with a very innovative
new graduate program in water systems, in which all the schools
participate. We’re doing it right now with the Summer
Scholars program that provides our undergraduates with an
opportunity to work with faculty in all of our schools and
our four affiliated teaching hospitals. Last year the Summer
Scholars came with their faculty mentors to Ballou Hall for
a poster session on their projects. For some of the faculty
from the Boston campus, it was their first visit in 25 years
to the Hill. So programs like the Summer Scholars are bringing
our faculty together as well. As we make new faculty appointments,
we are consciously looking to make joint appointments. For
example, Linda Abriola, Dean of Engineering, and Mike Rosenblatt,
Dean of the Medical School, are working closely together on
a number of recruitments. Similarly, Susan Ernst, Dean of
Arts and Sciences, and Steve Bosworth, Dean of the Fletcher
School, also have been collaborating on faculty appointments.
We recently created something called Tufts High Table. [University
Professor] Daniel Dennett runs it. He invites a group of faculty
for dinner once a month, each representing one department
on the Tufts Medford-Somerville campus. It’s faculty
talking to colleagues from other disciplines about their scholarship.
This initiative has proven to be very popular, and a number
of interesting scholarly collaborations have emerged from
It seems that beyond that educational qualifying process
there are things that transcend the boundary of an individual
Boundaries can be geographic. Boundaries can be disciplinary.
Boundaries can be temporal. We are trying to make all of these
boundaries much more permeable. Let me speak to the temporal
dimension. One of the things which I’m most excited
about, and proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish
over the last three years, is reaching out to our alumni.
That’s making the boundary that constitutes “Commencement”
more permeable. We are working to develop a lifetime, value-added
relationship with our alumni, one in which alumni will continue
to participate in the intellectual life of the university
through more intensive programming of regional Tufts Alliances,
digital access to resources on campus, and more engagement
through reunion and other events. Sol Gittleman always likes
to say, “If you amortize the cost of your education
over a lifetime rather than four years, it doesn’t seem
As I’ve traveled around the country I’ve learned
from our alumni that they want to be engaged. They want to
know what’s going on. They want to continue to participate
in the life of the campus. We are trying to accomplish this
objective through the creative use of technology. The Tufts
Career Network gives alumni access to career contacts and
connections throughout the world. The Tufts Online Community
connects alumni with classmates, notifies alumni about regional
events, and allows alumni to advertise business services to
others. We have developed our webcasting facilities so that
now we webcast Commencement live, and we’re going to
webcast major lectures like the Fares lecture in the future.
When you talk about Tufts and bringing the schools
together, what drives you to think that way?
I think that the great intellectual challenges that we face
as a society lie not at the heart of disciplines anymore,
but at the edges and intersections of the disciplines. Let
me expand. Probably the greatest scientific achievement of
the last 20 years has been the sequencing of the human genome.
We now have a road map that basically describes how the human
body works at the genetic level. How did this happen? It occurred
in part because there were some very clever biologists who
figured out how one could isolate and sequence a gene.
But if they had done just that, we would still be sequencing
the human genome for the next 20 or 30 years. Parallel advances
in robotics, information technology, and bioinformatics allowed
this process to be automated, to be speeded up, to be done
in a way that was not random. Through sophisticated mathematics,
biologists were able to identify where the mother lodes of
genetic information were located within the genome, and concentrate
their sequencing efforts in these locations. This approach
advanced the sequencing of the genome by years, maybe even
decades. This process was then automated through the use of
robotics and computers. Without the collaborative efforts
of biologists, mathematicians, computer scientists, and mechanical
and electrical engineers, we would still be working on the
From a medical standpoint, sequencing of the genome gives
us the capacity to develop new therapies and treatments. It
also may allow us to predict with great certainty who is likely
to come down with different types of genetic diseases. For
example, based upon a small sample of your DNA obtained from
your saliva, we may be able to predict with a high degree
of certainty whether you are likely to get Alzheimer’s,
certain types of cancer, or other dread diseases. So now that
we have the capacity to generate this information, how are
we going to use it? If I am an employer, can I ask for a sample
of your DNA before hiring you? Can I refuse to hire you if
it is likely that you are going to come down with cancer in
the future? Is it okay to refuse to allow someone to adopt
a child because their DNA suggests that they are likely to
die before the child graduates from high school? I could go
on. There are huge social, moral, economic, political, and
philosophical consequences to these questions. If we have
any hope of crafting reasonable policies, we must bring together
philosophers, ethicists, political scientists, economists,
and others. Our answers to these questions will reveal how
we think of ourselves as a society. The only way we will succeed
in addressing these questions is by working across traditional
You see a larger, integrated picture.
I see great opportunity. I want Tufts to be the kind of place
that is uniquely suited to addressing these complex questions
that cut across traditional disciplines. If we are to succeed
in this enterprise, we need to break down many of the traditional
boundaries that divide the university.
What advice would you give someone who’s considering
becoming a university president for the first time?
Be curious. Read voraciously. And learn to get by on not much